My first book, The Intellectual Barbarian, featured a short story called, ‘Latheck the Social Justice Barbarian’, which I originally wrote in 2015. It was written for an anthology called “Strange Breed: New Canadian Comedy” set to be published by Exile Press. The anthology was ultimately scrapped, and Latheck eventually made his first appearance in Jokes Review, a California humour magazine that liked it enough to have it illustrated.
By the time I put Latheck in my own anthology in 2021, the world had changed quite a lot from when I originally wrote his story. In 2015, a lot of the social justice jargon and talking points I was mocking was mostly confined to university campuses. From what I saw, it was espoused by white upper-year and graduate students from background of tremendous privilege with long and promising careers stretched out ahead of them. I thought it was hilarious to hear master’s students with full scholarships railing about the oppression of the police, often called the ‘Repressive State Apparatus’, decrying how shawarma shops were desecrating and commercializing Middle Eastern culture, and raving about the widespread sexual repression secretly enforced by the Canadian government through ‘The Canadian National Project’. A term that was never explained to me and that I’ve never heard mentioned since. In writing Latheck, I wrote down everything I took to be silly rich white boys aimlessly raging about whatever they happened to be reading about, and compiled it into a barbarian story, where I thought it was neatly juxtaposed with old-fashioned ‘Sword and Sorcery’ tropes.
However, times have changed. The identity politics I mocked in Latheck, a fringe concept at the time, are now a source of unjust scorn and outrage as a new wave of transphobia and bigotry against trans and non-binary individuals has gained steam throughout the world. Some of the jokes I made at the expense of my university colleagues nearly a decade ago are now flashpoints in a nasty and cruel culture war that aims to demean and demoralize people that don’t neatly check very old boxes we assigned to identity centuries ago. There are lines in Latheck’s story I’m certainly not proud of, and had I known how identity politics and fights over personal identity would be the struggle it is today, Latheck probably never would have been written.
However. Even with that in mind, I stand by Latheck and by most of what I said in that story. I’ll admit I’ve been tempted on more than one occasion to stealthily revise my first book and remove him entirely in a new edition, released in the dead of night without a word on the subject. But something happened that made me decide Latheck should stick around and that his story is an important one worth preserving.
On June 6th, 2021, a Muslim family in my hometown, London Ontario, were killed in a senseless and horrific act of violence when a man in a truck ran them down in a hate crime. This crime was shocking and horrifying. Across London and Canada, there was an outpouring of grief and support. At a mosque near where the murders took place, thousands gathered for a peaceful demonstration of solidarity. Children drew messages to the family in chalk on the street, a memory that makes me tear up a bit every time I think of it. People from the mosque handed out water bottles to the crowd, a welcome gesture on a ferociously hot evening. There was a sense of solidarity and healing in the air unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I was more grateful to the people of my city than I could say, as a sea of people stood quietly, paying their respects and being together in a moment of tragedy. There are few moments I remember so clearly.
I came home from that gathering and went on Instagram. In contrast to the feeling of support and healing, my friends on Instagram were full of rage and hatred. They were sharing memes and tweets about the murders, saying things like, ‘Canada was built on blood and that’s how it is maintained‘, saying the murders were ‘state-sponsored violence‘ due to the government’s treatment of Muslims, and that Canada always has been and is a ‘genocidal state‘. Just the most vicious bile was pouring out of people I considered friends who were hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from the vigil and outpouring of support in London. Most of this bile was being reshared from Greenpeace Canada, who had collected the most outrageous statements they could find and compiled them into an Instagram post meant to rile people up, stir up anger, and get lots and lots of engagement.
I reached out to my friends who shared this content, saying I was in London and had been at the vigil and that I hadn’t see this kind of hatred or blame at all. I asked them: why did you share this? What benefit would this have? One told me that as a person of colour, he wasn’t comfortable discussing it. One admitted they didn’t know why and just did it. Another told me she shared it as part of a larger plan to stop NATO’s secret take over the world, claiming NATO were bent on creating a new hegemonic patriarchy that would destroy society. I didn’t get a good answer. I unfollowed and unfriended the people who shared the bile and stewed in anger for the next few days. I did call Greenpeace, incidentally. I left a lengthy voicemail on their marketing coordinator’s answering machine, telling them how profoundly ashamed of them I was for amplifying such bile in a time when what people needed most was to heal.
I reread ‘Latheck the Social Justice Barbarian’ a week or so later. And in rereading it, it struck me that the story had a point. The left, progressives, social justice warriors, can say deeply hurtful and damaging things in the name of justice and equality. Tremendous harm can come from speaking thoughtlessly with the best of intentions. The Left can say stupid things. They can say profoundly hurtful things that pour gasoline on the cultural fire, helping no one. Latheck excels at this. He espouses jargon and nonsense he doesn’t understand because he wants to be accepted, powerful, and well-regarded in his circles. Rather like my university colleagues I was originally mocking. He’s a buffoon, an idiot, a coward, a poser, a fraud, and quick to react violently when challenged because he incapable of defending himself in a rational conversation. He is Twitter in flesh and blood. He is the absolute worst tendencies of the Left compiled into a white man. He was the most awful person I could think to create, a Donald Trump-ish figure but for the left. A grotesque and violent fool who rises to power by regurgitating incendiary and popular talking points he barely understands. A total and complete abomination. Latheck the Barbarian.
And Greenpeace Canada managed to outdo him. Something I never dreamed could happen. My father used to tell me the problem with writing humour is that it’s hard to think up anything stupider than what people are already saying and doing. And the responses I saw from people I considered friends to the murder of a Muslim family crossed lines I would never have even considered approaching with Latheck. People who pride themselves on being progressive and open-minded can be monstrous. That is the point of Latheck. So while I am tempted to scrub him from the internet and my works now and then, I think we need him as a reminder of the harm that can come from lashing out without thinking and from thoughtlessly repeating what the loudest people on the internet scream into the digital abyss.
Long live Latheck. Incidentally, he’s now ‘Latheck the Climate Change Barbarian’ and has a place of honour in my new book, if you’re interested.